Costa Rica is the first tropical country to have stopped, and subsequently reversed, deforestation. What can the rest of the world learn from the country and can it follow suit?

Pedro Garcia is one of many farmers who have taken the initiative to help restore Costa Rica’s forests. Garcia has worked on his seven-hectare plot in northeast Costa Rica’s Sarapiqui region for 36 years. As a result of his efforts, the region has transformed from bare cattle pasture to a densely forested refuge for wildlife, home to hundreds of species ranging from sloths to strawberry poison-dart frogs.

Garcia also grows agricultural produce, such as pepper vines and organic pineapples. 

While most of the world is becoming more aware of the climate crisis and the importance of trees in battling its associated effects, Costa Rica is already a leading example in mass conservation, having all but ended deforestation. 

“It is remarkable,” Stewart Maginnis, global director of the nature-based solutions group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), reported to CNN. “In the 1970s and 1980s Costa Rica had one of the highest deforestation rates in Latin America, but it managed to turn that around in a relatively short period of time.”

How Bad Was Deforestation in Costa Rica?

In the 1940s, 75% of Costa Rica was covered in rainforests. Following the arrival of loggers, much of the land was cleared to grow crops and livestock. It is unclear just how much land was lost, but it is thought that between a half and a third of forest cover was destroyed by 1987. 

Following this devastation, the government intervened to restore and preserve the forests. In 1996, the Costa Rican government made it illegal to chop down forest without approval from authorities and the following year it introduced the Payments for Environmental Services (PES) Program.

Today, close to 60% of the land is once again forest and the landscape is home to around half a million plant and animal species.

The country’s significant achievement is a clear disparity to the rest of the tropics where deforestation rates continue to increase. According to data from the University of Maryland, in 2019 tropical regions lost close to 12 million hectares– equivalent to 30 football fields per minute- with nearly a third of the loss taking place in older, carbon-rich primary forests.

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Monetary Incentives: The Driving Force for Environmental Compliance 

Costa Rica’s success was driven by economics. The combination of a ban on deforestation with the introduction of PES- which pays farmers to protect watersheds, conserve biodiversity or mitigate carbon dioxide emissions- is the reason for success.

“We have learned that the pocket is the quickest way to get to the heart,” says Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, Costa Rica’s minister for environment and energy, acknowledging that people are more likely to care for the environment if provided with an income- a sad yet harsh truth behind environmentally friendly behaviours and monetary incentives.

The PES scheme pays an average of $64 per hectare per year for basic forest protection, according to FONAFIFO, the nation’s industry fund. 

Elicinio Flores, a farmer who has replanted seven hectares of trees with the help of the PES scheme, said “I feel proud when I walk through the forest, not only for me but for my whole family … when I am no longer here, I know that my children will continue to look after it.”

The scheme allows farmers to generate additional income by selectively harvesting timber from the reforested areas. Flores sought guidance from Fundecor, a sustainable forestry NGO, to ensure he does not disrupt or harm the ecosystem in any way.

The government scheme, predominantly financed by a tax on fossil fuels, has funded a total of $500 million to landowners over the last 20 years, according to FONAFIFO. It has saved more than 1 million hectares of forest, which is equivalent to a fifth of the country’s total area, and planted over 7 million trees.

The Influence of Culture and Ecotourism 

According to Maginnis, Costa Ricans’ deep respect for nature has played a vital role in the country’s reforestation success. This respect is reinforced by the country’s booming ecotourism sector. Patricia Madrigal-Cordero, former vice-minister for the environment, says, “People come to see the mountains, the nature, the forests, and when they are stunned by a monkey or a sloth in the tree, communities realise what they have here, and they realize they should care for it.”

Welcoming 3 million tourists a year, more than 60% choose to visit Costa Rica for its nature, according to its tourism board. Last year, tourism produced $4 billion in revenue for the country, and the industry accounts for more than 8% of GDP, employing 200 000 people. 

“People in Costa Rica receive a lot of money because of tourism and that changes the incentives of land use,” says Juan Robalino, an expert in environmental economics from the University of Costa Rica.

Robalino claims that without tourists, less effort is exerted to maintain and preserve the environment; with less revenue, there is less funding for conservation, ultimately leading to less ecotourism.

Costa Rica is not the only country that is determined to protect the environment. Guatemala, Mexico, Rwanda, Cameroon and India have also committed to restoring at least one million hectares of forest through the Bonn Challenge, a global effort that aims to restore 350 million hectares of degraded ecosystems and deforested land by 2030. However what these countries lack, and what Costa Rica has, is a long history of environmental policy coherence and consistency, noted Maginnis. Political will combined with environmental passion and tourism has allowed the country to become a pioneer in reforestation. 

The country’s environment minister explains that despite the fact that Costa Rica’s strategy in reforestation and encouraging environmentally friendly behaviour can be applied anywhere, ‘principle and values’ are required, too. He noted that ‘good governance, strong democracy, a respect for human rights and a solid education system’ is vital for success. Madrigal-Cordero added that the secret to Costa Rica’s environmental triumph is a generation of peace. She says, “nature is in our DNA.”